January 18, 2021

The Hard Limits of Decoding Mental States: The Decodability of fMRI

High-profile studies claim to assess mental states across individuals using multi-voxel decoders of brain activity. The fixed, fine-grained, multi-voxel patterns in these "optimized" decoders are purportedly necessary for discriminating between, and accurately identifying, mental states. Here, we present compelling evidence that the efficacy of these decoders is overstated. Across a variety of tasks, decoder patterns were not necessary. Not only were "optimized decoders" spatially imprecise and 90% redundant, but they also performed similarly to simpler decoders, built from average brain activity. We distinguish decoder performance when used for discriminating between, in contrast to identifying, mental states, and show even when discrimination performance is strong, identification can be poor. Using similarity rules, we derived novel and intuitive discriminability metrics that capture 95% and 68% of discrimination performance within- and across-subjects, respectively. These findings demonstrate that current across-subject decoders remain inadequate for real-life decision making.

 bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience

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